A Mad Way South

Crossing the Sahara on kite buggies

The Sahara desert landscape in Morocco.

Man down, man down!” the frantic words crackle across the team walkie-talkies. Two weeks into a record-breaking attempt to cross the Sahara desert on kite buggies one of the four-man team, New Zealander Steve Guerney, has had a serious crash. His buggy has been lifted 10 feet into the air by a strong gust of wind and Guerney has slammed head-first into a large rock. His team members arrive at the scene to find him hanging upside-down, still strapped into his buggy. His head is at a strange angle and his neck is cranked tightly forward onto his chest. He is passing in and out of consciousness and the blood trickling from his nose is filling the lens of his wrap-around sunglasses.

“After making sure he could wriggle his fingers and toes we unstrapped him, and carried him up a steep dune to the road where the support vehicle rushed him to the nearest hospital,” recalls team-leader Geoff Wilson. Incredibly, Guerney hadn’t broken any bones. Although he suffered some concussion, a burst eardrum and torn ligaments in his shoulder he was released from the hospital after a night’s observation.

“I truly thought my days were over,” Guerney says recalling the accident. “I got that really sick feeling in the deepest depths of my stomach.”

In the end, Guerney puts his lack of serious injury down to the years of experience he has of crashing into things.

“Doing extreme sports has taught me how to relax the body to spread the impact over the greatest area as possible.”

Two days later Guerney was back in his kite buggy ready to tackle the remaining 1,200 km (744 miles) of some of the harshest terrain in the world.

“We were a bit concerned about him getting back in the saddle so soon” muses Australian Wilson. “I thought he might have had some brain damage, but seeing as he’s a Kiwi it’s really hard to tell.”

It had all started about a year earlier when Wilson, a practicing vet, came up with the idea to stake a place in the record books for the first wind-powered trans-Saharan crossing and the longest ever kite buggy voyage. Dubbed the Mad Way South, it began as a personal challenge but once another Australian and two New Zealanders decided to come along, it quickly became competitive.

“There’s no way you can put Aussies and Kiwis together on a trip like this without it turning into a race,” Wilson jokes.

Adv 2_Kitebuggy
Wikimedia Commons

On August 4, 2009 after months of intensive planning the adventurers, wearing Mad Max-style body armor, the group arrived at the edge of the desert in Agadir in northern Morocco and unloaded four specially adapted kite buggies. The contraptions are single-seater vehicles thought to have been invented by the Chinese in the 13th century but popularized in the U.S. in the 1970s. The record speed for a kite buggy is 124 kmh (76 mph) but the specially adapted “desert buggies” used by the teams were fitted with devices to restrict their speed to a maximum of 55 kmh (34 mph).

They had set themselves a target of crossing 2,500 km (1,500 miles) of desert in the height of summer in under a month. Their guide, London-based Africa expert Guy Lankester recalls the first time he heard the proposal.

“I told it to them straight. I said ‘it’s the most insane idea I’ve ever heard… but I love it.’”

The start of the race was a bit of an anticlimax. With winds of only 4 knots the adventurers began their epic journey with a snail-paced crawl off the start-line. However, the winds picked up and with their slick tires on firmer sand they soon found themselves travelling at maximum speed across the desert.

“Winding through scrub, cacti and sharp lava rocks at that speed is really exhilarating but there’s a lot going on,” Guerney says. “It’s a bit like trying to drive a car through a slalom course whilst texting, eating and changing your undies.”

The buggiers would need to cover about 100 km (62 miles) per day if they were to reach Dakar, Senegal by the end of the month as planned. However, in the first weeks it seemed as if they might’ve been overly ambitious in setting this target. Conditions in the desert were much tougher than they’d anticipated with daytime temperatures topping 120 degrees and sandstorms forcing them to take cover. But the main unforeseen problem was the delays caused by crashing their kites. In the deserts of Queensland a crashed kite could be re-launched with ease but in the Sahara Desert the kite’s intricate bridle lines would become instantly ensnared by thorns, which would take about 20 minutes to untangle. With the buggiers crashing their kites several times each day in the fickle winds, progress was slow.

Whilst kite crashes might delay their journey, a much greater threat was posed by buggy crashes. As Guerney’s crash demonstrates, buggying is an extremely dangerous sport and the risks of flipping a buggy are high. Despite being heavily loaded with water and tools, the buggies were frequently lifted into the air by gusts of wind. If they landed badly the buggy would roll over. In typical Antipodean fashion the adventurers invented a name for these frequent crashes: OBEs — Outta Buggy Experiences. If they were lucky these OBEs would occur on soft sand. If they weren’t so lucky they could find themselves landing on rocky or thorny terrain.

As they made their way further south another serious danger became apparent: landmines. Their route took them down the Moroccan coast and into the disputed territory of Western Sahara, scene of one of the longest running and most forgotten conflicts in the world. Western Sahara was occupied by Morocco in 1976 in defiance of a ruling from the International Court of Justice. A 16-year war followed during which thousands of miles of desert along the border regions were mined. Although a U.N. ceasefire was signed in 1991, the Moroccans repeatedly blocked the self-determination referendum and an estimated 20,000 mines remain buried beneath the sand. For a few hundred kilometers it was therefore necessary for the kite buggies to stay on the tarmac roads: the danger presented by oncoming traffic being preferable to that of accidentally travelling through a mine-field. The teams were warned not to travel more than 10 meters (33 feet) off the road but when the kites crashed it was necessary to wander into the desert to untangle the ropes.

“I’ve never felt sphincter-tightening tension quite like it before,” Guerney says. “You pick your way across the sand to retrieve a kite from no mans land just listening out for the sound of a click.”

“The trip was not all blood, sweat and tears,” Lankester emphasizes, describing the spectacular shift in scenery as they travelled from the deserts of the Sahel to the tropical fecundity of Equatorial Africa. “The people we met were incredibly hospitable and generous and they were fascinated by the kites. I remember sitting with a group of children as we watched those four sails approaching across the distant dunes. ‘Les oiseux’ they cried and it was true: The kites did look like a small flock of beautiful soaring birds.”

Soon after Gueney’s crash the buggiers crossed the border into Mauritania, which gave them a double cause for celebration: Not only were they now out of mine-country, but they had also broken the record for the longest kite buggy journey, the previous record having been held by three British adventurers who crossed 1,000 km (320 miles) of Gobi desert in 2006.

On April 29, the teams finally rolled into Dakar. As well as being a mad-cap adventure the race had also helped to promote eco-friendly, carbon neutral travel and raise funds for SHE Rescue Home in Cambodia, a refuge for trafficked women in South East Asia. Despite several few near-death experiences, the team had managed to steer a safe passage between shark-infested coastal waters, land-mined borders, Al Qaeda militants and the unremitting harshness of the Sahara.

As he lets his kite fall to the ground for the last time, Wilson’s sun-crack lips form a broad smile.

“Enough of this kite-buggery. Anyone for a tinny (a can of beer) on the beach?”